Updated 5:44 P.M.
A University of Chicago professor turned down a request from prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on the school’s campus.
Constitutional expert and law professor Geoffrey Stone recently made his email exchange with Spencer public this week after the violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“My strong support for the right of students and faculty to invite speakers to campus to address whatever views they think worth discussing does not mean that I personally think that all views are worthy of serious discussion,” Stone wrote to Spencer.
In April, Stone wrote an op-ed for The New York Times and defended Spencer’s right to speak at Auburn University in Alabama. Auburn is a public university while the University of Chicago is a private one.
In his request to speak at the University of Chicago, Spencer — a University of Chicago alum — wrote that he appreciated Stone’s piece in the Times and praised the school’s 2016 letter to incoming students stating that the University of Chicago would not be a “safe space” from dangerous ideas.
“From what I have seen of your views, they do not seem to me to add anything of value to serious and reasoned discourse, which is of course the central goal of the university,” Stone wrote in his reply. “Thus, although I would defend the right of others to invite you to speak, I don’t see any reason for me to encourage or to endorse such an event.”
Spencer did not respond to WBEZ’s request for comment.
From his university office in Hyde Park, Stone spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara about why he declined Spencer’s invitation.
Melba Lara: You are clearly a strong advocate for free speech on college campuses, including defending Richard Spencer’s right to address students, but why did you say no to appearing jointly with him?
Geoffrey Stone: Well he has no right to come to the University of Chicago or any private institution in order to speak.
The right is that [of] the students or the faculty or the staff to invite speakers who they want to hear to the campus. So when he asked me if I was interested in inviting him, I basically said I was not, that I think the university is dedicated to serious ideas and discussion, and having reviewed his own writings and his own speeches, I said to him that I did not think that his views were sufficiently serious to merit discussion in a university.
And so I thanked him for his inquiry but told him that I was not interested in inviting him myself. But I also said that if students or faculty or staff here wanted to invite him to come and speak, that I would certainly defend their right to have him come and that they should have the right to do so if that’s what they wish for.
Lara: But what about the argument that the best way to combat bad ideas is to expose them to public attention and critique?
Stone: Well I believe in that, but that doesn’t mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a bad idea has a right to come and speak at the University of Chicago or any other institution.
The ideas can be discussed and debated in all sorts of different ways, including in classes and in readings and other speakers. Besides, I think it’s fair to say that the vast, vast majority of people at the University of Chicago would already understand why his ideas are basically stupid and immoral, and there’s no great need to voice that since it would already be regarded by most people as essentially not terribly persuasive or serious.
Lara: Having said that, you also wrote to Spencer that if someone else at the university invited him to speak, you would defend the right to do that. Considering the violence that we saw in Charlottesville this weekend, could that be kind of a dangerous proposition?
Stone: I believe that the faculty and students and staff at the university have a right within the university’s guarantee of academic freedom to invite speakers who they wish to invite to campus. And it is the responsibility of the university, within reasonable limits, to take all steps that those events take place in a civil and orderly manner.
And if it turns out that it’s impossible to meet that — and that at a particular moment there is a sufficiently violent disruption that it’s necessary to stop an event — then I think a university can do that. But one shouldn’t anticipate the impossibility of that, because the fact is it’s not impossible. And the university’s responsibility is to do everything it reasonably can to ensure that free speech is fully protected on campus.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment, which was produced by Patrick Smith. Web story written by Justin Bull.